Artistic craftsmanship in the 21st century?

You’re not alone if you’ve been left a little dispirited by contemporary art exhibitions, thinking you had missed the wow factor of a virtuosic skill showcase or thought too often to yourself, ‘A five-year-old could have done that!’ Nowadays there is less emphasis put on the importance of craftsmanship within art and this is especially evident if one frequents art school degree shows. Craftsmanship is not discouraged, but aesthetic beauty is now seen to sit alongside a variety of other offerings art can make: conceptual intrigue, provocative activism and humorous satire, for example. If, however, you’re feeling a bit cynical about this shift, I’m going to advise you to search for the (probably numerous) screens in the gallery. Craftsmanship is making a major resurgence in Fine Art but it’s happening where you might not think to look.

Emerging from UK art schools right now are some astonishing digital skills. Jasmine Johnson (recently graduated from Goldsmiths) has appeared in the Bloomberg New Contemporaries as ‘one to watch’ and the work showcased certainly is. The video ‘Thieves and Swindlers are not allowed in Paradise’ is predominantly constructed from computer-generated imagery; a fictional 3D environment is painstakingly rendered to simulate the shimmery silk of an Apple Mac computer and the shiny reflectiveness of well-polished oak floorboards. Overlooking the conceptual merits for now, this work is aesthetically and technically rich.

Rebecca Merrill, who graduated from the Slade in 2015 offered an Oculus Rift experience at her degree show. Technically it was incomparably superior to the Oculus Rift offering made by the incredibly well established artist, Carston Höller, at the Hayward Gallery during the same summer. Merrill works predominantly with video as a medium but has branched into video games, a prism also masterfully deployed for artistic means by home-grown talent Laurien Ash. Laurien graduated from the Ruskin in 2015 and was immediately offered a slot in Modern Art Oxford’s project space as part of the Platform Award. Her ideas manifest themselves through interactive game environments, which Laurien amazingly builds by herself – not something professional game designers do! An artwork well executed, displaying technical nous and labour hours is appealing, and it makes a generous offer to its audience, providing multiple layers of intrigue and enjoyment.

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At a basic level it can be aesthetically admired, and then one can delve deeper into the ideas and process behind the work. Video and digital artists emerging into the art world often demonstrate technical proficiency equivalent to the virtuosic painting we already know and love. Now, let’s give the screens some time.